On Induction

Posted by on May 16, 2011

I recently read a book that introduced me to the concept of induction.

The theory and philosophy of knowledge, known to smarty pants as epistemology, is a rich and complex field of study where bearded men in ivory towers lined with mahogany think for years upon years without really going outside, therefore kind of losing touch with reality and being aware, really, only about themselves. This is why philosophers often ask about whether a table really exists, because they spend all day with their elbows and foreheads on them. After learning about this I decided to grow a beard, manscaping was a bit difficult but I purchased a new grooming kit that helped me.

This, of course, brings us to another question, which is “are we really aware of anything other than the data our senses feed us, and since we seem to be feeling something, about ourselves?”. Perhaps these crazy old men are onto something, to best understand the world we must force ourselves into seclusion. I’m not that type of person, rather wanting to be outside, or drinking $15 margaritas, so I may not be cut out to be a professional philosopher.

Since this blog has a very strong scientific undercurrent, because I don’t really know anything else, I wanted to bring this induction deal to your attention. The question is not very difficult to ask, it happens to be immeasurably difficult to answer.

Theory? Proof? Law?

Science is a simple hand that can grab the most complicated of objects. Like any other hand, it has nerve endings, and it feeds us with information so we can better figure out the shape of this object. It is a tool for us to deal with the world, and a tool to help us manipulate it.

We make some observations, and we form a hypothesis. We create an experiment to prove this hypothesis, we gather data, analyze it, and decide whether we were right or wrong. From that point we re-formulate our hypothesis and move forward until we whittle down that ugly tree stump into a finely carved statue. Science is about truth, about elegance, and most importantly, about making more science.

The problem is, can we ever know that the law we currently believe in is the ultimate law? Every time you slam your hand against a table, there’s a rapping sound that’s unmistakeable. If the table is made out of wood, the sound will always be similar, it won’t sound like you hit a pane of metal or a stack of newspapers. We therefore gain almost absolute certainty that hitting a wooden table with our knuckles will make a rapping noise.

Could this, however, not be the case one day? Is nature uniform enough to where no matter where in the universe we are, if we rapped our hand against wood, would the same sound be made? If we hit it on the moon probably not, since there is no air to carry sound waves. In this case, our “wood punch law” would no longer hold true. The tree that falls in the forest makes no sound if the forest is in such a place.

“The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.” -Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

We’re not as dumb as the chicken, so from now on, we will always disbelieve everything we’ve ever known because we’re continuously reminded about how wrong we’ve been in the past.

The Principle of Induction

The principle of induction can be summarized in this way:

(a) when a thing of type A happens, and type B happens in association, and they have always been observed as to happen together, the more times the types A and B happen together the more likely that they will be associated in a future occurrence.

(b) enough times of (a) happening will make their association near certainty. Operative word is near.

The inductive principle can only speak of things that have already happened – to make a prediction is to make an inference completely dependent on this inductive principle. It cannot be proved. One day, our data gathering will become better, and we will see a better association between A and B, and the old law will be thrown away and the new one will be in place.

A classic example of laws that are supplanted are those of motion and gravitation: Aristotle’s laws of dynamic motion were replaced by those of Galileo, then Newton, and then those of Einstein. We already know that relativity doesn’t work at every scale, so one day Einstein will be proven inaccurate. It’s just a matter of time.

Can We Really Know Anything With Absolute Certainty?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but my attitude is: do I really want to?